Last week, I went to ABC’s The Glass House to look through its windows and ask questions about the show that has earned more attention than viewers. It’s a intriguing concept–truly letting viewers impact the game in real-time, and letting players interact with viewers in a way they’ve never been able to before–but one that hasn’t found much traction.
I talked with executive producer Kenny Rosen, who famously has worked on Big Brother and also currently executive produces Hell’s Kitchen, acting as showrunner on one of the two seasons that air each year. I met him in his fourth-floor office at the studio, where Rosen can pull up any camera and mic in the house and listen in. He was very candid and open, discussing everything from CBS’ lawsuit to the show’s low ratings to just how many people are affecting what happens in the house.
Below are highlights from our long conversation; later, I’ll take you behind the scenes of the set itself. (Please do not copy and paste this post into your message board or blog; link to it instead.)
- Why the players go to a hotel for 52 hours every weekend. They players leave the soundstage house on Saturday at 2 p.m. and move in Monday at 6 p.m. “just a few hours before we go live,” Rosen said. I asked if that made things less interesting because the break from isolation allows them to recover. “No,” he laughed. “They actually hate leaving because they’re isolated in limbo from each other and from the rest of the world.” Rosen said that, even with five days in the house, there’s “way too much footage for one episode a week” and the current schedule allows for real-time interaction with viewer votes. Also, letting them leave means the players get sunlight and fresh air. The soundstage does not have any actual windows, so the players are deprived of natural light. On weekends, they’re taken to the pool, given access to exercise equipment, and go on walks, presumably without leashes.
- What is limbo? Nothing more than a sequester hotel where they’re confined to their rooms for about 22 hours a day, though the players make it seem like it’s more than that. “We never really said, ‘Don’t tell them what limbo is,’” Rosen said, yet “they act like, ‘Oh my god, limbo’s the worst place, I don’t ever want to go there again.’”
- The CBS lawsuit over the show’s similarities to Big Brother. “I was taken by surprise; I didn’t know it was coming. It was quite a shock to me,” Rosen said. “To me, the whole thing is really unfortunate because it turned into a lot of fear and intimidation tactics against a lot of my employees. That’s the worst part about it.” However, “it hasn’t really affected us on a daily basis.” He receives frequent supportive messages from those who “either worked with me or was above me at the time,” and said those “felt good. There are supporters out there. It’s not like everybody’s teamed up against me and what we’re trying to do over here: to just create a new show.”
- The show’s ratings and ABC’s reaction. “ABC has been really, really supportive even though our numbers have not been great, which we’re fully aware of. They get the concept, they want it to be different, they want it to be futuristic. I don’t know if they ever thought it was going to be this massive hit right off the bat,” Rosen told me.
- Not changing the format or game mid-season. After Jacob quit, Rosen said, “We didn’t want to say, ‘Let’s throw it out the window; it was a bad experiment. … We didn’t want to get out of the gate and not stay true to our format.” (You know, like that other show that doesn’t ever stay true to its format.) As to that format, he said, “I think my staff is having a lot of fun and feels that our work is really good. I feel like we’re pumping out a pretty good show every week. It’s a shame that we don’t have more viewers, obviously. But we’re sticking with the program and not panicking and changing the game or changing format; we’re basically sticking with it. Who knows: Maybe if we get another shot, we’ll tweak a little bit or put it on at a different time or different season.”
- A possible change to the game for season two. “What if you made the middle two people the team captains? Because if you hate somebody and you love somebody, those are the people you want to watch. Why don’t you pick the mediocre people, they people don’t really inspire you to love them or hate them,” Rosen said. “It’s just an idea I threw out there yesterday when having a chat with somebody.” Even if it was just a random thought, I actually think that’s a fantastic idea, and not just because it would remove the predictability of the votes.
- Voting and the power of the few. “There are all sorts of ways we could alter the game but at the end of the day, you still want the viewers to have final say on who their cast is and who should stay and who should go,” Rosen said. That happens now, but there aren’t many people in control of the house. About 70 percent of voting takes place during the live feeds, and “we’re not getting a ton of viewers during those hours, unfortunately,” Rosen said. “We may want to rethink when we do our live feeds; they were based on market research.”
So how many people vote? They’ve sometimes received “close to 40,000 votes” but it’s usually around 30,000 each week for the limbo vote. Rosen told me, “It’s interesting how we cater to sometimes, 10, 15,000 people. We’re producing our asses off for a small amount of people sometimes. It’s a little bit discouraging but at the same time, it’s really good practice to figure out what works and what doesn’t work.”
- Giving players things to do during the online live feed shows. That small but vocal group also affected the content of the live feeds. A majority voted online that they prefer produced live feeds rather than just watching the players interacting and potentially doing nothing, even though that’s the kind of interaction a lot of Big Brother feed watchers prefer.
- How close the votes have been. “If we do end up getting a second season, we’d have to make some sort of changes because, like you said, become way too obvious as to who is coming from limbo and who isn’t,” Rosen told me, after I pointed out that the person who was the least-popular and selected as team captain has always gone home after the limbo vote. However, he said that it’s not as close as it’s seemed: “We’ve had some really, really close votes,” noting that Kevin versus Ashley was “super-close” while other votes have been “beat-downs.”
- How they choose what to show. Of course, producers retain some power with their editing. “We try to do a fair representation. We’re not trying to tear anybody down or keep some contestants over other contestants,” Rosen said. “I get discouraged, honestly, when I read comments online about how we, the producers, want to keep Kevin and Andrea, and we’re only showing nice pieces on them. It’s just not true. If we had stuff to show them being duplicitous or lying or backstabbing or getting trashed beyond belief and doing stupid shit, or whatever it was, I would show it. Trust me, I would show it. I can only work with the material that they give me. And whenever I do have a piece that’s particularly scathing about any particular individual, I honestly try and show that this person has more to them than that one particular angle that you just saw.”
- Giving viewers control even though that can mean bad television. Although it never even became a working title, an early name for the series was Dance, Monkey, Dance. That illustrates what’s at its core: “This is the future, this is the next step in the reality television genre: you controlling the actual players. I don’t think that’s something to be given up on, I think it’s something to fully embrace,” Rosen told me. “Our cast gets it at this point. They fully embrace it; it took them a few weeks.”
But what about viewers? I brought up season one of Big Brother, during which viewers voted out all the interesting people. While Rosen said he “didn’t watch the first season” (he came on board as a producer in season two), he told me, “it’s 11 years later and you gotta give a little bit more credit to the reality viewer than the 2000 reality viewer that they get it. They know that you need villains, and they know that you need people that are going to mix it up.” Later, he said, “Maybe at the end of the day, [The Glass House] was just a little bit before its time. I don’t think it may be a lot before it’s time; now that the concept is out there, if it could be fine-tuned and tweaked a little bit, it may take off.”
- On Big Brother. Rosen produced the show for seven seasons, from 2001 through 2007, and joked, “I’ve seen enough Big Brother for a lifetime.” As to the recent trend, he said, “they’ve done the same twist now four years in a row, as far as bringing back former contestants. … I think they’re afraid to do it without, to be honest.”
- Getting feedback from viewers. Rosen said he’s gone on ABC’s web site under his real name and asked for feedback, but “people are just more interested in saying, ‘I fucking hate Erica and get her out of the house and I hate Joy and this and that,’ than actually talking to the executive producer and giving me feedback.” He tried that two or three times, and “it really didn’t go anywhere.” As to what producers pay attention to and what they ignore, he said, “There’s so many haters out there, you have to ignore a lot of it, but if there’s actual constructive criticism out there about what’s funny, what’s good, what’s bad, we’ll read it and talk about it as a group.”
- Prime-time Alex Stein 99 (ugh) and how he may have turned off viewers. Rosen was “completely crushed” by both Alex’s exit and porn star Jacob quitting. However, had producers brought Alex back, “He would have just left week two instead of week one, and we would have gotten backlash for manipulating the game and bringing back Alex.” Rosen said “it would have been nice if he had slowly come out with that strategy” but Alex’s behavior meant “there was no place to go but down, and he wasn’t a good villain, he was just a mean dick.” More damning is that Alex’s behavior may have affected the show: “Who knows what the show would been had he not come out of the gate with that ridiculousness right off the top. I think that turned a lot of people off to the show, because they’re like, ‘Okay, I’ve seen this type of reality show before; I don’t need to watch Real Housewives of People Locked in a House Screaming, Yelling, Cat-Fighting at Each Other,’” Rosen said
- The age and height of the cast members. “We consciously put people in the house who were a little bit older than the average reality show contestant,” Rosen said. “Ten weeks is a long time, and you run out of shit to talk about. If you don’t have any life experience, either, you’re fucked.”
- The size of the cast. “This is maybe the biggest cast I’ve ever had on any show, ever: Gene’s 6’6, Kevin’s 6’4″, Jeffrey’s 6’3″,” Rosen told me, though he added, “Our women are all normal-sized.”
- Swearing and ABC. No more than 10 bleeps of swear words are allowed per show by the network, which is clearly more conservative than Fox. By comparison, Rosen said, “We would average like 83 curses per hour” on Hell’s Kitchen.